If you work in marketing for a higher education institution, the fall is a stressful time. You’re ramping up marketing efforts, rounding up contact lists and realizing just how far your budget will go this year (never far enough, if we’ve heard enough stories!).
How exactly do you grab the attention of not only nervous, exhausted teenagers or undergrads, but their equally emotional parents? How can you utilize current technology to its fullest to ensure that you provide a great user experience for your pool of accepted candidates? How do you differentiate your school in a flood of acceptance letters? And, ultimately, how do you do all of the above to maximize the number of accepted candidates that become incoming students?
While the answers will vary based on your institution and the type of students it attracts, there are twelve mistakes that we see all too often that should always be avoided:
#1 Forgetting About Mobile
This principle is first for a reason: it’s absolutely unacceptable to not be mobile-first. Yes, having a mobile-compatible website and application is a great step in the right direction, but mobile should be the priority, not an afterthought. According to some university marketers, up to 80% of your traffic will come from mobile at some point during the year – so make sure it’s just as compelling as your desktop website and print pamphlets!
#2 Skipping Personalization
Do you expect your favorite retailers to have a different message and design for you when you’re looking at a product for the first time, when you’ve added something to your cart and after you purchased? Guess what: so do your students (and their families). What’s more, one-size-fits-all messaging will be less compelling and memorable, which means it’s more likely to get lost in the shuffle for students who have been accepted to several institutions.
Don’t stop at just reacting to their demographics and stage in the pipeline, though – use the data you know about the reader to create a more customized experience from start to finish. Users should feel catered to, as they’re getting ready to decide with which institution they should entrust their future!
#3 Deprioritizing SEO
Speaking of great content and personalization, don’t forget about the most difficult group: the people you haven’t been able to make contact with yet. The people who haven’t found your website, haven’t applied and possibly haven’t heard of your school at all.
You want to be found by these people, right? Don’t hide! The best way to get the right kind of attention going to your website is to make search engine optimized (SEO) content a top priority for your writers and designers.
Don’t just apply SEO to your landing pages though – ensure that every page is optimized, and that you’re using the right tools to boost your placement in search engine results. An interactive events calendar can dramatically increase your results, as tools like Localist are not only recognized as a calendar by Google, but also create individual event pages that are up-to-date and link back to the main website. Both of these functions essentially prove to search engines that your site is active, frequently refreshed and updated, and worthy of their viewers’ eyes.
Once you have your SEO under wraps, don’t forget to tie it together with that personalized, engaging content we just talked about. A huge factor in your search engine ranking is whether your content reads well; it should, first and foremost, be designed for humans. Be your own harshest critic when it comes to reviewing the content you put out – including everything, down to acceptance letters – to ensure that every paragraph is unique, personalized, relevant and highly readable.
#4 Skipping A/B Testing Ads and Creative
Throughout your efforts – starting on day 1 and continuing until all enrollments for this year are completed – make sure to test your two top performing campaigns by running them against each other, and using A/B testing tools on your advertisements and campaigns. There are plenty of proprietary services, and many online advertising networks have built-in features that enable you to perform this testing; make sure that your entire team understands the process and results are recorded accurately, and tied to the demographics responding.
Use this data to steer not only your current campaign, but those that follow it. Don’t shy away from testing tiny tweaks to messaging either – sometimes a small change in phrasing can make all the difference.
#5 Prioritizing Traffic Over Engagement
Everyone likes validation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you see the number of visitors rolling in after a campaign goes live, it’s perfectly normal for you to feel happy and satisfied. You’re on the right track!
However, don’t stop your measurement there. You did succeed in getting people to come to your website, but now a new challenge begins – getting them to use your website. Compare your visitors (traffic) with other numbers, such as bounce rate, visits to non-primary pages, conversions, and repeated visits to get a more accurate image of how your entire brand persona is playing out – and where it can be improved.
#6 Ignoring Analytics
Make sure that you have analytics in place as soon as possible. This will allow you to measure how effective each piece of your overall campaign is, from email blast to blog posts to traditional media.
This data will also let you know details of your audiences’ activity, such as times that work best for them to receive emails, what keywords are most enticing for them to click on, and more.
#7 Ignoring Social Media
Think social media is all for fun and games, and not for serious decisions? Think again! Your core audience relies on social media not only for a large portion of their entertainment, but also information about the world around them.
Use this medium to put forth some real personality, and give prospective students a feel for what your institution is like, and what it stands for. This could mean everything from hosting Twitter chats with current students or alumni, to running social media contests for prospective students (university swag is always a big draw!) and even to leading campus tours on Vine, Instagram, Snapchat or the next big platform.
#8 Saying No to Automation
If you’re a Type-A person, or prone to anxiety at all, you’ve probably been told to relax, and that you “can’t do it all.” This advice applies to your work as well.
Utilizing automation software not only takes a lot of repetitive, boring work off your plate, but it also ties into your analytics, allowing your campaign to increase its effectiveness on its own! Haven’t even put your toes in the automation water yet? Consider starting small – schedule your Tweets and Facebook posts in advance with tools like Hootsuite and Buffer. Once you’re comfortable with those, you can invest in a long-term solution, or the enterprise model of either of the aforementioned options. There are even a few free options to try out before you commit to a more robust system.
#9 Devaluing Data
This is a tough one but very common. When you release a campaign, the human tendency is to rely on your perception of how far it’s reaching, rather than the data that you get back. For a print advertisement in a local newspaper, for example, it’s easy to assume that everyone in the area is seeing it, as many adults are. However, those adults – though some of them will be your target audience, or the parents of your target audience – may not really be what you’re aiming for, especially if you’re attempting to attract undergraduate enrollment.
Throughout the campaign, revisit your data points, see what media is bringing in the most engagement, as well as traffic. Ask your software vendors to explain product features you don’t understand. Retest with A/B testing throughout. Essentially, be your own devil’s advocate – continuously ask how do you know it’s working? Prove it!
#10 Not Leveraging Influencers
Are there certain people online and in the media that you trust? Think figureheads like Anderson Cooper for news, Martha Stewart for home decorating, or Al Michaels for football. Your mission is to find out who those trusted people are for your key audience. Who do they follow online? Who do they turn to for opinions? How can you reach out to those people in a way that will encourage them to speak kindly about your institution (key question: are any of them alumni?)?
By leveraging influencers, you’ll reach a much bigger market than you can on your own, whether that’s their friends, family, or social media followers. More importantly, your audience is more likely to trust word-of-mouth messaging; 89 percent of B2B marketers say customer testimonials are their most effective content marketing tactic. Let influencers and alumni provide those for you.
#11 Hiding the Value Proposition
While education is one of the finest investments a person can make for themselves, it is still just that – an investment. When it comes down to it, higher education is a purchase, and it’s important not to forget that.
When designing your marketing material, website, sales letters and other customer-facing material, make sure to focus on your value proposition – that is, what sets your institution apart? Why is it the best choice? Keep in mind that this statement must differentiate you from your closest competitors, not just the general marketplace.
#12 Not Having a Metric for Success
How do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal, if you don’t have a specific one? It’s critical that at the start of a campaign – preferably during the planning process – you decide on a specific goal that, once you reach it, officially marks your campaign as successful. This also means that as you get closer, you know which numbers to pay attention to and spend the most time improving.
Do this for all of your campaigns – for your accepted students campaign, your metric will likely be conversions/enrollments; for your awareness program, your metric will likely be engagement or traffic.
Best practices for higher education marketing are wide and varied, but with these common mistakes in mind, you’ll be able to steer clear of replicating others’ issues. Good luck!